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In light of the pandemic, strict regulations are in place practically everywhere in Europe, even during Christmas, and families will not be able to celebrate together everywhere. But in spite of this year’s restrictions, Christmas is a special celebration in all three countries. 

Christmas is the time for families in Europe

People in Portugal get their presents on the morning of the 25th, and not on the 24th, the way we do in Germany. The traditional Christmas meal is cod (bacalhau), which is eaten with cabbage and potatoes. In Slovenia, Christmas begins with a special meal on 13 November for lots of people. And in Germany, a goose or duck is traditional fare for Christmas. The different Christmas traditions reflect the diversity that exists inside the European Union.

Susan Pinto from Portugal, Jasmina Dvoršek from Slovenia and Antje and Julia Krumme from Germany tell us how they celebrate Christmas. What national traditions do they have? How are they celebrating Christmas this year in the face of the pandemic? Things are going to be very different for everybody this year. But one common factor is that Christmas is a time for families. 

Different member states – one Trio

The three countries differ not only in terms of their Christmas traditions. Geographically, they are also far apart. Portugal has an Atlantic coast, Slovenia has a short Adriatic coast, and Germany borders the North and the Baltic Seas. Germany is home to 81 million people, a far larger population than Portugal’s 11 million and Slovenia’s 2 million.

They joined the EU at quite different times, too. While Germany was one of the founding members of the EU, Portugal joined what was then the European Community in 1986. Slovenia was still on the other side of the Iron Curtain then, and joined the EU in 2004, during the course of the EU's enlargement process to admit Eastern European states.

How do people in each of the three countries celebrate Christmas?

Cod in a creamy sauce, turkey with stuffing and a nativity scene made of cakes. These are all part of the Christmas traditions of the Pinto family in Portugal. Journalist Susan Pinto tells us how she traditionally celebrates with her large family and what will be different this year.

Susan Pinto and her extended family last year, before the pandemic hit. This year the family will not be able celebrate together like this © Susan Pinto
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Ms Pinto, how do you celebrate Christmas in Portugal?

Susan Pinto: I celebrate Christmas with my family. There are 21 of us. My parents, my three siblings, myself, three brothers-in-law and 12 grandchildren. We always come together at my parents’ house on the evening of 24 December and for lunch on the 25 December. 

Our family has lots of traditions. On 24 December in the evening the men all have to wear suits and ties. The women get dressed up, too. The grandchildren try to wear the special clothes they were given last Christmas Eve – if they still fit! My parents never give the children toys, always clothes. When the children were smaller they all got exactly the same clothes.
In the evening we always sing a lot. My nephew plays the guitar and almost all the grandchildren are good singers. They work out their own choreography and make my parents very happy and very proud. They are really proud of this extended family they have cultivated. At lunch on the 25th we all wear our new clothes and the grandparents have a family portrait taken with their grandchildren. 

The dinner is cod, which we eat with cabbage, eggs, carrots and beets. For the grandchildren who don’t like the cod prepared that way, my parents cook cod in a creamy sauce. Lunch on 25 December is turkey and stuffing and goat kid meat. We eat potatoes cooked in their skins and a wonderful rice that my father cooks. 

The desserts are amazing. Every son makes the dessert that he can make better than anybody else. My favourite is condensed milk cake. My mother always bakes biscuits with some granddaughters and decorates them like real works of art.

Every year Susan Pinto's mother bakes a nativity scene made of cake © Susan Pinto
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There is always a Christmas tree with these biscuits, and my mother always makes an entire nativity scene out of cakes. One is more amazing than the one before. And then of course we have “rabanadas” - baguette dunked in an egg and milk mixture, deep fried and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar.

What does Christmas mean for you personally?

Pinto: For me, Christmas is just an extension of what we do all year. Until the virus came, we ate Sunday dinner at my parents’ house every week. They were very lively nights. The games are always very competitive! From STOP to charades to musical pieces presented by the younger grandchildren. For me Christmas is all about the family.

Has the pandemic changed Christmas for you personally this year?

Pinto: Yes, it will be quite different. It’s already different. My mother would normally be busy baking biscuits with her grandchildren now. But that’s not happening. This year, for the first time, we will not be celebrating Christmas at my parents’ home. We are finding alternatives, so that we can protect my parents.

What is the current situation in Portugal?

Pinto: At the moment, Portugal is facing the second wave of the pandemic. The number of new cases every day is about 5,000. And the situation is worsening. The intensive care units are stretched to the limit. The medical and nursing professions are exhausted. Society is no longer the same. We are unfortunately living in strange times.

The Portuguese “Cake of Kings” is not to be taken lightly © Mauritius images
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At Christmas, the Portuguese bake: Bolo Rei

With its topping of brightly coloured candied fruit, this cake is modelled on the crowns of the Three Kings. It is best enjoyed with a glass of Port – straight from Portugal’s Douro Valley. A recipe for this dish can be found here

In Slovenia: 'On Christmas Eve I visit my mother and we bake potica'

For Jasmina Dvoršek from Slovenia Christmas is a time for the family. Normally she meets up at Christmas with all of her close family, who are scattered all over Slovenia. The pandemic means that the event manager cannot plan for Christmas this year – but she remains optimistic.

Christmas also means taking a walk together to get fresh air for Jasmina Dvoršek and her family (from left to right: Jasmina's mother Marija, her brother Jure, her sister-in-law Marjeta and her niece Nika) © Privat
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Ms Dvoršek, how do you celebrate Christmas? 

Jasmina Dvoršek: Christmas is traditionally a family celebration in Slovenia. It is the time for relaxing from the stress of everyday life and spending a few days off with the family. Although my family is small we are scattered throughout the country. In the days leading up to Christmas I usually prepare a family meal. I experiment with the national cuisine of the country I visited most recently. Sometimes my family likes it and sometimes they don’t, but the most important thing is that we are together. We exchange small Christmas presents and spend a nice evening together. And it’s a chance to put on our special Christmas jumpers again! 

On Christmas Eve I visit my mother and we bake our traditional Slovenian Christmas cake, potica. We always resolve to go to midnight mass, but we usually fall asleep early in the evening – especially because we spend the morning of Christmas Day outside taking a walk, or preparing the Christmas meal. It’s another opportunity to cook for the family. 

What does Christmas mean to you personally?

Dvoršek: Although Slovenia is a small country, my family and I are apart for most of the year because of our daily activities. That makes Christmas an exciting time of year, when the whole family gets together. For me Christmas is the time when I am close to my family. 

Every year, Jasmina Dvoršek bakes the traditional Christmas cake potica with her mother © Privat
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Has the pandemic changed Christmas for you personally this year?

Dvoršek: At the moment, we have one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe here in Slovenia. That means we can’t plan our family get-together over Christmas. Since I am single, that is particularly hard for me. I hope we never have to go through this again. 

How do you see the current situation in Slovenia?

Dvoršek: My work has involved constant travel until now. Not being able to travel is something I just cannot get used to. I am really looking forward to being able to travel again. On the other hand, this year I have discovered parts of my own country I didn’t know existed. So I’m trying to stay upbeat (and COVID-negative) and to keep on exploring – at the moment I’m trying to discover all the secrets of Ljubljana, where I live.

Potica is a national speciality - this version uses poppyseed © Picture-alliance/AP Photo/Bandic
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At Christmas, the Slovenians bake: Potica

Postage stamps have been dedicated to this Christmas delicacy. A classic of the Imperial Habsburg cuisine, it also has its place in every good Austrian collection of baking recipes. A recipe for this dish can be found here.  

For Antje and Julia Krumme from Augsburg, and their baby daughter Franzi, Christmas is traditionally above all a celebration with family and friends: baking special Christmas biscuits and going for wintry walks. This year, Christmas will be different for the young family. They both hope that people will continue to embrace the principle of solidarity until the worst of the pandemic is over.

Julia and her daughter Franzi with her first Advent calendar © Privat
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How do you celebrate Christmas? 

Antje Krumme: This is our first Christmas with our baby daughter Franziska. In the morning we will decorate our Christmas tree together, and in the afternoon we would like to go to an open-air church service if it can take place. Then the grandparents come to visit and we cook and enjoy a special dinner together. Traditionally in our family the baby Jesus comes with presents after dinner (a little bell tells us he is coming). Then we do presents under the Christmas tree by candle light with soothing music.

What does Christmas mean to you? 

Julia Krumme: Christmas is above all a family celebration for us. During Advent and over Christmas we also enjoy meeting up with friends to bake special biscuits, go for wintry walks through the countryside, or just enjoy one another’s company. 

Has the pandemic changed Christmas for you personally this year? 

Julia Krumme: For the last 20 years we have spent every Boxing Day at my parents’ house with lots of friends and neighbours to “see out” Christmas together. A big party like that is impossible this year, so only the close family will meet up. 

Antje Krumme: During Advent we were often unsure whether it was a good idea to meet up with friends or whether we should avoid contacts. We didn’t manage to avoid all contacts though, so we met up with some of our closest friends to bake Christmas biscuits. On the third Sunday in Advent we had to be home by 21.00 though, because the numbers of new cases were so high in Augsburg that a curfew was imposed. 

Franzi Krumme plays with Christmas decorations © Privat
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Somehow, the pandemic has slowed things down in the run-up to Christmas. Normally the last few weeks before Christmas are packed full of Christmas parties, visits to the Christmas market with friends and hectic shopping trips. That was all scaled back this year, so we had more time for us as a family. 

How do you see the current situation in Germany? 

Julia Krumme: I have the feeling that the government is trying to do its very best to protect the people as far as possible. But I still see the situation at the moment as fraught, because the number of people who are suffering from the restrictions is steadily increasing and of course the people who see their livelihood threatened are dissatisfied.  

Antje Krumme: I just hope that people will continue to embrace the principle of solidarity until the worst of the pandemic is over and that we can get through the next few months together until the situation eases again.

Even if there are not 12 stars, this cookie is still European: Cinnamon stars © Mauritius images
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At Christmas, Germans bake: Cinnamon stars

As their name suggests, these are the true stars of Germany’s Christmas specialities, the ingredients pure luxury: cinnamon, almonds and vanilla are just good enough for cinnamon stars, which turn their noses up at flour. And yet, the people of Swabia, who first invested this delicacy, are generally deemed to be anything but big spenders! A recipe for this dish can be found here.  

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